Holiday Party Harassment Concerns Making This Season Less Merry

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

The current explosion of sexual harassment accusations will make the always-difficult holiday party season even worse this year for employers, attorneys and consultants warn.

Unacceptable behavior may not be any worse at this year’s office holiday parties than it was in the past, but HR departments should brace themselves for a bigger wave of complaints than usual following high-profile accusations against a host of men in the worlds of media, entertainment, and politics.

There was a surge in sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the six months after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, in which former staffer Anita Hill accused him of harassment, Nancy Delogu, a shareholder in the Washington offices of Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg Law. “It will be interesting to see” if that happens again, she said.

“It’s likelier people will complain” this year, Jonathan A. Segal, a partner in Philadelphia-based management-side law firm Duane Morris LLP, told Bloomberg Law.

Blame It on the Booze

Alcohol served at many office holiday parties is a major reason for concern, Delogu said. Employer clients tell Delogu they are worried about liability for drunk driving accidents if they serve alcohol at their holiday parties. But sexual harassment complaints from employees “letting their hair down too much” should be a bigger concern, she says.

“It’s the alcohol, and people hear holiday party and they think it’s a free pass to act like an idiot,” Dallas-based consultant Holly Caplan told Bloomberg Law.

The better economic times of the past few years seemed to stimulate more employers to offer alcohol at their holiday parties. Some 62 percent of employers offered alcohol at their parties last year, up from 41 percent in 2014, according to surveys from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

But that trend stopped this year. Less than half (48 percent) of employers surveyed in 2017 said they planned to offer up wine, beer, or spirits this season.

Still, Andrew Challenger told Bloomberg Law, “Employers have to be aware of how they’re serving alcohol.”

Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said HR professionals should get involved with the decision to serve alcohol, check the company’s insurance coverage, and hire professionals to monitor any alcohol consumption at the party.

Party Best Practices

Brandi Britton, district president at OfficeTeam, suggested that “inviting employees’ significant others and families can make things more fun and also encourage individuals to be on their best behavior.”

Britton told Bloomberg Law several practices that can help prevent harassment at holiday parties: hold the event during regular business hours on a weekday, remind employees of standard workplace conduct rules before the party, tell managers to set a professional example and watch out for questionable employee behavior, avoid activities that could cause awkwardness, and keep the event simple, she said.

In addition to stopping inappropriate behavior immediately during a holiday party, managers must see to it that corrective action is taken afterwards, said Segal, who was on the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.

After the party, Challenger said, employers should investigate rumors of inappropriate behavior, as well as formal harassment complaints.

Caplan suggested that CEOs set the expectations for appropriate, professional behavior at holiday office parties.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Tony Harris at tharris@bloomberglaw.com

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